National / Politics

No progress by Japan and South Korea defense chiefs over intel pact in Bangkok

Kyodo, JIJI

The defense ministers of Japan and South Korea made no progress Sunday on stopping the expiry of their military intelligence-sharing pact, considered crucial to reducing the threat posed by North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons.

There was no single development toward avoiding the termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement that expires Saturday, a Japanese official said, noting that Defense Minister Taro Kono and his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo, “only stated their respective stances.”

During their 40-minute meeting in Bangkok, Kono urged Jeong to reconsider Seoul’s decision to end the pact, which came into force three years ago and which is also known as GSOMIA.

“We want to call on (South Korea) to act sensibly,” Kono said at the meeting in Bangkok, given that not only the security situation in the region but also the relationship between defense authorities of the two Asian neighbors has been “very severe.”

Jeong, for his part, said during the talks on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus it is regrettable that the two countries’ relations have deteriorated, while showing his readiness to make efforts to help advance bilateral defense cooperation.

Kono stressed that the collaboration between Japan and South Korea and among the two countries plus the United States is critically important at a time when the security environment surrounding the two East Asian countries is very tough due partly to North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile launches.

Jeong told reporters after the meeting that he called for a “diplomatic solution,” saying that the decision not to renew the accord resulted from Japan’s tightening of export controls on some South Korea-bound products for national security reasons.

Reached in 2016, the accord is mainly aimed at countering the North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

The two sides nevertheless agreed that they should maintain communication on matters of defense to deal with North Korea-related issues.

Japan has repeatedly asked South Korea to renew the accord, as Tokyo is also concerned about a possible weakening of trilateral security cooperation with the United States.

But Seoul insists it will only reconsider its August decision to scrap the agreement if Tokyo first reverses its move earlier this year to tighten controls on exports of some materials needed by South Korean manufacturers of semiconductors and display panels.

A three-way meeting between Kono, Jeong and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper also took place Sunday in Bangkok,according to Japanese officials.

Esper said sharing information between the United States, Japan and South Korea is vital, while Kono said it is necessary to continue defense cooperation among the three allies to address security challenges.

Jeong, however, said their three-way cooperation is facing both “large and small difficulties” due to the standoff between South Korea and Japan.

However, the three ministers released a joint statement following the meeting, with a strong focus on North Korea, in which they pledged to “closely cooperate to support diplomatic efforts to establish complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

It said they will “stay vigilant” on North Korea following its recent series of ballistic missile launches and agreed to step up their cooperation, “including information sharing, high-level policy consultation, and combined exercises.”

Esper visited South Korea before traveling to the Thai capital in an attempt to persuade Seoul to renew the intelligence-sharing pact.

But South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Esper on Friday that it is “difficult” for Seoul to share military intelligence with Japan, while promising to make continued efforts toward security cooperation among the three countries.

Japan-South Korea ties, which have long been haunted by wartime history, sunk to their lowest level in years in October last year when South Korea’s top court ordered a Japanese steelmaker to pay compensation for forced labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.The relationshipfurther deteriorated last December when a South Korean naval vessel allegedly locked its fire-control radar on a Self-Defense Force patrol plane.

Before returning to Japan on Tuesday, Kono plans to also meetwith Esper and other defense ministers.The ADMM-Plus meeting involves the defense chiefs from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its eight regional partners — Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States.